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Stalled engine: The TurboGrafx-16 turns 25


September 12, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6
 

But it was worse than that, Brandstetter says. TTi could rarely even get U.S. versions of existing Japanese games onto shelves. TTi would submit lists of games the company wanted to put out in the West, only to have Japan offer only a fraction: "if we gave a lineup, a list of what we thought would be the killer lineup for Christmas, we maybe got one out of the 10 or 15 titles we asked for," he says.

"And it wasn't like the titles had to be redone or anything. We would do the translation over here, the packaging had to be done. And then it just didn't happen," Brandstetter says. He flew to Japan for meetings, presenting research on what games would do well in the U.S. market -- only to wait, and wait, and then get very little.

For example, he wanted to release Konami's PC Engine Castlevania title, Dracula X: Rondo of Blood -- predecessor to the classic Symphony of the Night. "Have you ever played that game? That would have made a huge difference. It sold like crazy over here in the gray market," he says. Nothing ever materialized out of his request. Every negotiation had to go through Japan, and answers were slow or not forthcoming at all.

"It's almost like you can sit there watching paint dry. It's like, you're telling them what will make money and they just don't. And it's proven. 'Look, here's Sega, they're doing things. Here's Nintendo, they're doing things. See what they're doing? If we just do what they're doing, we'll make money.' And that doesn't make sense to them," Brandstetter says.

TTi knew that the TurboGrafx had two major constituencies: fans of shooters, as Hudson had excelled at them -- "That was our big, big stuff," Brandstetter says -- and fans of RPGs, built by Ys and bolstered by the efforts of Victor Ireland's Working Designs.

"That was our key audience, that was kind of what made us," says Brandstetter. Cosmic Fantasy 2, a Telenet-developed CD-ROM RPG that Ireland released in 1992, sold "almost 1:1" with the TurboGrafx CD-ROM hardware NEC had released to the market prior to the introduction of the Duo, Ireland says (which is where the 20,000 unit install base figure comes from.) There was even talk of packing it in with the TurboDuo (the system included the first two Bonk games, Hudson shooter Gate of Thunder, and RPG hit Ys Book I & II.)

Konami's Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, one of the most critically acclaimed titles of the 16-bit era.

The system had "so many great games in my favorite genres -- RPG, shooters, and arcade/action," says Ireland. But despite his efforts, and those of the TTi crew, too few saw the light of day in the U.S.

"I was in Japan all the time, in meetings with these guys, saying, 'Here's the lineup. Here's why.' 'Well, you need to research.' 'Okay. Well, here it is again. Here's why.' And then, nothing. You'd hear nothing back for months," says Brandstetter.

Brandstetter showed so much enthusiasm that Hudson executives had the idea of turning him into a mascot for the system -- like they had in Japan with Toshiyuki Takahashi, a marketing staffer that the company christened "Takahashi-meijin," or "Master Takahashi," and used in advertisements and sent on promotional tours to gin up interest in Hudson's games. Kids looked up to Takahashi.

"The idea came from Japan, when I was there: 'John and Takahashi! John should be the American Takahashi-meijin!'" The result was a widely derided series of comic book-style advertisements casting Brandstetter as "Johnny Turbo," in a fight against "Feka" -- a cheesy analogue for Sega.

As a marketing concept, it was a bomb, particularly in the face of the sophisticated marketing blitz from Sega and Nintendo, who were in full-on console war mode.

Despite the unhelpfulness of Japanese management, initial results with the TurboDuo were promising, and Tsuji asked for a major marketing budget to take on Sega and Nintendo for real.

Needless to say, that didn't happen.

"Marketing is, over here [in Japan], it's not the same kind of animal, so it was very hard for them to understand that part," says Greiner. The Japanese, cautious about the U.S. market to begin with, also didn't understand it: "We had all these great games; we really knew how to create superior products. We just never knew how to market them in the West."

Fade Out: "No Lineup, No Marketing, No Money"

When TTi was founded, says Brandstetter, "We thought we had the freedom, but we still had the boat anchor of Japan. So, if we had had our own money to spend and not have to go to Japan for everything, we would have probably done fine."

Ireland backs that up: "Tsuji-san really wanted to make it work, but it was pretty clear within the first six to eight months that Japan wanted it to fail and just shut it down."

Greiner confirms that, from Hudson's perspective, that isn't far from the truth: Japan always saw the system as in "a bit of a downward spiral," he says. "So I'm not sure how much hope there was to actually revive it into a winner. It was more to kind of gradually extinguish the cause, if you will."

The effect on TTi was obvious: "So we're kind of like a bathtub toy just spinning around in circles with no direction that we could take, because the money wasn't there," Brandstetter says. Things were complicated by the fact that the U.S. slid into a recession in the early 1990s: "The yen went crazy and the dollar tanked. That, I think, hurt us a lot."

From 1992 into 1993, TTi kept releasing games, but "With no lineup, no marketing, no money for merchandising. We were done," says Brandstetter. During 1993, TTi had submitted another list of titles to Japan with hopes of releasing them that fall, and things looked good. Brandstetter began talking them up to video game magazine editors -- only to be told by Japanese management, "Oh, no. We're not getting any of that."

"And that was kinda like, the beginning of the end, there," he says. Christmas 1993 passed, and by then, stores had stopped carrying TTi's releases. Its last several games were shipped via mail-order only, and in meetings between TTi staff and Japanese management at the 1994 summer CES show in Las Vegas, the decision was made to formally pull the plug on TTi and the TurboGrafx.

"We did get some attention from the people in the industry and the people who liked the games, but as I said, it only lasted for a certain time and then declined," Saito says. Though the desire to relaunch the system "was not faked" by the people at TTi, says Greiner, there was no will in Japan to make a strong showing of it.

"The people I worked with at TTi were no less dedicated than Sega, but they were just beaten down by too much meddling from Japan and way too little money to make a real difference in the U.S. market," says Ireland. Snook, the Beyond Shadowgate developer, says that Brandstetter and Saito "were both great people to work with."

All remaining stock was passed to a new company started by TTi called Turbo Zone Direct, which continued to service TurboGrafx systems and sell games and accessories via mail order and online until 2001, under contract from NEC.

By the time TTi exited the market, the TurboGrafx had only 138 game releases, and had only ever had five third party licensees. In contrast, the PC Engine had well over 600 games, and was broadly supported until 1995, with its last game coming out in 1999.

Though it introduced the TurboDuo, TTi had never had to manufacture more TurboGrafx-16 units; in fact, says Brandstetter, the last 100,000 to 200,000 U.S. consoles were unloaded on the Brazilian market, with their expansion ports disabled. The initial order NEC made in 1989 for 750,000 units never sold through to U.S. customers. As for the Duo? "Turbo Zone Direct had Duos for at least 10 years," Brandstetter says.

Hudson Soft kept the PC Engine and TurboGrafx alive on the Wii's Virtual Console and the PlayStation Network, but there's been no activity since 2011. The company was acquired by Konami in 2012. The console generation has changed, now, and even those games will eventually fade. Without Hudson Soft boosting its erstwhile creation, it's unlikely that future devices will support the system's library. 

When I asked Greiner what he thinks will happen, he wasn't optimistic. He'd looked into the issue himself. "I think it's the end. I think unless somebody's going to bring something back that they want to remake, then there won't be anything, no. It's definitely it."

So It Goes

Many of the people who worked on the system did love it. "If there was any old machine I'd want to play, it would definitely be TurboGrafx, absolutely. No doubt about it," says Greiner. "It was revolutionary at the time, and so many fun games."

The ill-fated TurboExpress -- the handheld that played TurboGrafx games -- is a particular favorite of the people I spoke to. "I thought it was a very, very cool handheld system. Nobody else had something like that back then. It's a shame that it didn't sell well at all," says Saito. "I still have my TurboGrafx Express. I pull it out every once in a while to remind me that I'm not in the game business anymore," O'Keefe laughed.

But it's no surprise that  the people I spoke to didn't have very fond memories of working on the TurboGrafx-16  -- "it was a somewhat painful experience for me," says Ken Wirt.

Brandstetter's frustration is still palpable, 20 years after he quit the company. "It's like you got handed the winning lottery ticket with the numbers scratched off and it's worth a million bucks, but somehow on the way to the post office on the way to turn it in, you peed on it or threw it away. That's basically what happened to the Turbo, or the PC Engine, here."


Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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